- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Many college freshman arrive on campus with no clear idea of what they want to do with the rest of their life, while others seem to have figured that out years earlier. For University of Alaska Fire Chief Doug Schrage, his first campus job turned out to also be his ideal career.

Schrage, a calm, focused man who radiates an air of quiet competency, was born is Des Moines, Iowa. His family moved to Anchorage when Schrage was 6 years old and then to Wasilla when he was in the ninth grade. Schrage enrolled in UAF with some of his friends after graduating from Wasilla High School in 1981.

“I had no interest in firefighting or any of that. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do - I was just trying to get away from home. My friends encouraged me to apply for the student fire department because they were in it,” Schrage said. “I discovered that’s what I wanted to do.”

Schrage found himself drawn to the several aspects of firefighting.

“It’s very meaningful work. You’re doing something that’s valued by the community and is important to our society,” Schrage said. “The second thing that’s really rewarding about the career is the sense of camaraderie and team work. It’s an occupation that forces you to be a team member, because it’s the only way that works.

Schrage spent four years at UAF as a student firefighter and applied to the Anchorage Fire Department in 1985.

He was hired in the first round and made his way steadily up the ranks from firefighter trainee to deputy chief.

After almost 26 years with the AFD, Schrage returned to UAF as the chief of the same department he’d come to as an untried young man.

Schrage said he finds the role of part boss/part mentor/part father figure to a new generation of firefighters to be as rewarding as his previous positions.

“We provide a structured environment. These students, when they come in, they mature very, very quickly. Partly because of the gravity, the seriousness of the work they have to be able to perform,” Schrage said.

“There’s also an enormously influential social network in the student fire department. The new people find themselves learning how to cook and clean and do laundry pretty quickly,” Schrage said.

There have been many changes in firefighting since Schrage started. Firefighting gear and the overall safety culture have improved dramatically.

Another change is the number of female firefighters. When Schrage started in Anchorage, there were 250 firefighters and only two of them were women. The numbers have improved since then but not as much as Schrage would like.

“My belief is there aren’t more women in the fire department because they look at the fire department and they don’t see any women. If there were more women, there’d be more women,” Schrage said earnestly.

“So, my goal is to start producing more educated, experienced and trained female firefighters. We want to start populating the Alaska fire departments,” Schrage said. “The idea is, to the extent that women want to do that work, we want to make sure they’re welcomed and able to meet the same standards.”

Schrage doesn’t have any daughters, but if he did, he said he’d be happy for them to follow in his footsteps as two of his sons have.

Benjamin, 22, is a UAF student currently working on the Nanook wildfire crew on the Sockeye Fire near Willow.

Aaron, 20, is a student firefighter at UAF pursuing a bachelor’s degree in emergency management. Eldest son Calvin is an accounting student at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Did Schrage’s wife Mary have any issues with two of her kids choosing the same dangerous career as her husband?

“If she’s upset, she hasn’t shown it,” Schrage said. “I didn’t encourage any of them. I think it’s what they knew, so that’s what they did. It’s very satisfying work, and it’s exciting.”

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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